| Naples: Life, Death & Miracles
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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Mar 2007, updates through 2015
Everything is related to Naples
Number 75 in this series. Link to all items here.
(There are 4 items below.)
Secret Tunnels! -or-
majesty! Into the sewer!"
"I'll see you
sounds like something out of Baroness
Orczy's Scarlet Pimpernel:
the swish and rustle of ballroom finery,
swordplay and the shouts of revolutionaries
running through the night, thrusting their
flickering torches into any cubby-hole that
might shelter a cowering nobleman; then, the
storming of the royal palace, at which point
the king turns the trick candelabrum lever
in the library to move the wall panel and
flees into the secret passage and away to a
ship that takes him into exile forever.
Whew. Sob. It didn't turn out that way in
Naples, but I wish it had. That's much
better than Garibaldi's
army just kicking down the damned door
and marching in. (Actually, in September of
1860, Garibaldi took the train (!) for the
last seven miles into the city and was
greeted by a cheering throng.)
On February 19, 1853,
King Ferdinand II of
Bourbon, signed a decree that gave to
Alvino the task of building an
underground passageway from the west under Mt. Echia
(Pizzofalcone) to connect with Piazza
Vittoria at the royal palace. (Thus, the
tunnel would bore beneath the cliff upon
which stood the acropolis of the original
Greek city of Parthenope,
well before "Neapolis"—Naples.) This was not
meant for pleasurable strolls in the Bat
Cave for the royal family or anything of
such a social nature. The tunnel was
strictly military: it was meant to bring in
troops to protect the Royal Palace, if
necessary; these troops were garrisoned on
the other side of Pizzofalcone near Piazza
Vittoria at via Pace (now via Domenico
Morelli) in quarters at Ferrantina square
and at San
Pasquale di Chiaia. The tunnel would
also provide an escape route for the royal
family. (What would happen if the troops
running in ran into the kings and queens
running out? I don't know.)
The work was started
immediately and then interrupted in 1855 for
technical reasons as well as the fact the
revolutionary turmoil was moving faster than
the people with shovels. The entire kingdom
was about to be engulfed in a war to resist
Garibaldi and subsequent incorporation into
a united Italy, a war that the Bourbons
The end of the tunnel at via Domenico Morelli had the advantage of some "starter" caves to work with. These had actually been quarries used to provide blocks of tuff rock for the many Spanish villas and churches that sprang up in the 1500s and 1600s in the area. Thus, one finds inscribed dedications from as early as 1512 of a villa belonging to one Andrea Carafa, count of San Severino, and, from 1588, the quarry that provided material for the church of the Nunziatella (converted into the Bourbon military academy in 1787).
In spite of the advantages of
pre-dug cavities in the area, 1855 builders
started running into enormous difficulties
due to the large number of cisterns and
aqueducts still in use at the time below the
surface, things that you could not simply
dig through without interrupting (or even
destroying) the water supply of tens of
thousands of inhabitants in the area. The
tunnelers in the 1850s also ran into the
same problems as have their colleagues
throughout the centuries in Naples (even
today!): to wit, the changing nature of the
material you are trying to tunnel through.
It is all volcanic, but when you cross the
boundary from solid tuff into a less densely
packed strata of pyroclastic material, the
sides and ceiling are more likely to cave
in; thus, as the tunnel progresses from west
to east, it narrows and gets lower since the
workers had to spend more time shoring up
potential danger spots rather than making
the whole length uniformly wide and high. (This item has more
on recent problems of tunneling in Naples.)
The tunnel was
left in an unfinished state, that is,
without an exit near the royal palace, until
1939, when the Fascist government decided to
convert it into an air raid
shelter (see item #3, below) The
entrance was on the north side of Piazza Plebiscito
from the building that now houses the Naples
prefecture. After the war, the entrance was
covered and forgotten about until 1968, when
local urban spelunker Clemente Esposito
uncovered it. The numbers are impressive:
the original Bourbon tunnel plus the earlier
Spanish quarries plus the aqueducts
converted to air raid shelters (possible
only after the new Naples aqueduct in the
late 1800s had made them no longer
necessary) come out to 10 sq km (almost 4 sq mi).
Until the 1970s the underground area was used as a "Municipal Deposit." What that really meant was a place to dump the enormous amounts of wartime rubble. This includes not just the bricks of bombed-out buildings, but cars, motorcycles, old refrigerators, statues, and, generally speaking, accumulated broken bits and pieces of centuries of Naples. An exhibition about the tunnel was put on at the Castel dell'Ovo a number of years ago. One awaits further news of some final disposition of this latest addition to what Neapolitans now call "the other city," by which they mean the 700 (!) quarries and many miles of ancient passageways beneath the surface.
#2 update: Mar 14, 2010
I'm not sure what the big deal is about discovering chunks of those Fascist Marble Statues (FMS!—overly-ripped goons of Art Deco Futurism who more or less all resemble the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still—except not as limber). Yet, the papers are fussing about the statues, apparently dumped into the Bourbon Tunnel as the Allies closed in on Naples in 1943 and Fascists swiftly morphed into anti-Fascists. (I guess the mayor couldn't very well hide those things in his closet.) The papers should really be fussing about the place where they were found—the tunnel—because this means that work is progressing towards opening the thing to the public sooner or later, another bit of underground Naples to add to the already impressive list of tunnels, caves and quarries of "the city beneath the city." [Link to portal for Underground Naples.]
An organization called Borbonica sotterranea is pushing ahead with the clearing and cleaning up of the ex-Bourbon military tunnel beneath Mt. Echia. They have produced a good video of their efforts to date; the video is at this You Tube link. The hard-hatted gentleman's explanations are in Italian, but they more or less tell the same story as item#1, above. There are some interesting sidelights in the video, however, such as the addition of a row of late WWII latrines put in when the tunnel was used as a bomb shelter. Also, you can see the abandoned cars and other detritus dumped into the tunnel in the mid-1940s. The particular FMS that has the papers oohing-and-aahing seems to be what is left (photo, above) of the monument to Aurelio Padovani (1888-1926), an early Neapolitan Fascist trade unionist who participated in Mussolini's march on Rome in 1922. The monument to him had stood in the square in front of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli (now the site of ongoing construction for a new metro station).
#3 update: Mar 7, 2011
The papers have announced the opening of the splendid new Morelli parking structure; it is dug into the side of Mt. Echia, a few yards from the west exit of the Galleria della Vittoria car tunnel one block from the Villa Comunale. The entrance to the structure is totally inconspicuous; within, however, it is a seven-story affair with 250 long-term rental spaces and 230 hourly slots. More impressive for our purposes, however, is that the entire affair occupies the western entrance to the old Bourbon Tunnel, which has now been opened for public tours; thus, another bit of the "city beneath the city" is now accessible to tourists who fancy themselves mole-people.
There is a difference between being "beneath the city" at this site and elsewhere, say, in the downtown area of Naples. Here, you are really beneath the pre-Naples city of Parthenope that sat on the hill above you. The entire hill, as indicated in item #1, above, has a great many quarried out caves, perhaps the most famous of which is the Cavern of Mithra. That one, of course, is Greek, but most of the large quarried spaces beneath Mt. Echia are cisterns that drew on the Carmignano Aqueduct from the early 1600s. These are upside-down funnel-like structures dug deep down into the hill (details here), many of which were then incorporated into the Bourbon Tunnel in the 1850s. Those cisterns (and the tunnel, itself) were abandoned after the building of the new aqueduct in the 1880s; later, many of the cisterns were used as bomb shelters in WWII. The builders of the shelters used the Bourbon Tunnel for access and then tunneled off to the sides to find additional cisterns, and then tunneled further to the next one and the next, thus connecting them and giving a labyrinthian quality to the whole complex of shelters. Some of them are very large (one is nicknamed "The Cathedral"!), and some are small enough to make you intensely dislike being confined beneath a mountain. (Don't make me talk about the ant-hive corridors and connecting passageways!)
Entrance, newly opened Bourbon Tunnel
Stairways into the shelters from the surface were dug in WWII, but there are older stairs as well. A guide told me that during the process of exploring and clearing the old cistern spaces to the sides of the tunnel, they found a long, steep stairway leading up and decided to follow it. They found a closed door up at the top and knocked! A dog on the other side went into a frenzy of überbark since he had surely never heard a knock from behind that door before! Sooner or later, Fido's master came and opened up. (He said "Who is it?" first, at which point one of the fun-loving guys from Borbonica sotterranea replied, "We have come from the Underworld to take you! Heh-heh-heh.") The urban spelunkers found themselves in the basement of a veterinary clinic up on a busy thoroughfare atop the hill in the area known as Pizzofalcone. The members of Borbonica sotterranea have spent the last five years to get as far as they have and the results are impressive. For my tastes, however, they spend a bit too much time doting on their collection of old abandoned cars and motor scooters; rather than clear them out, the Borbonica sotterranea has pushed them all over to the side where they join the broken hunks of marble mentioned in item #2 (above); it all looks like a display of humorous installation art; for example, one old and crushed Fiat has been adorned with a scrawled reminder from the attendant to "please leave the keys in the ignition." (The sign was probably put there by "Underworld Guy" from a few sentences ago. The cars are even featured on the tickets for the guided tours (photo, above). So, the entrance is on via Morelli; there is a pedestrian entrance that will lead you past the parking structure to the back and to the gated entrance to the tunnel. (If I have not been obvious enough about it, don't go if you are claustrophobic.)
To Hell & Back
This is NOT the River Styx...this is NOT the River Styx....
Crossing the Styx- Gustave Doré (1861)
That is your mantra if you decide to go on this tour. And the little guide in the hard-hat might not be Charon taking you for your last boat ride, this one to Hell. Indeed, since my last visit (item #3, above) the troglodytes of Borbonica sotterranea have been hard at work burrowing out their domain beneath Mt. Echia, the hill upon which the original Greek city of Parthenope was built before there was a Naples.
The most recent activity has involved bridging the spaces of the Bourbon Tunnel (described in the entries, above) to an adjacent and more recent space, this one a 400-meter tunnel started in the 1980s and meant to be part of the original Rapid Tram Line (RTL) which was to be ready by 1990 in time for the Naples matches of the World Cup that year (see this link). That flopped, both as soccer and engineering. Italy lost to Argentina in Naples, and the RTL tunnel was partially built but never completed. (The stretch of tunnel running in from near the stadium in Fuorigrotta has, however, since been incorporated into the new Line 6 coming into Naples from the west. That section is now up and running as far in as Mergellina.) From the downtown end of that RTL project, however, they started to tunnel beneath Piazza Plebiscito (the square in front of the Royal Palace). The idea was to head west and meet up with the line coming in. Assuming they didn't pass each other like moles in the night, there would then have been some grand Transcontinental Railway Moment; they would drive a golden spike, perhaps, and fans could then get out to the matches in Fuorigrotta. Could they do all that in just a few years? No. The whole project gave up the ghost, and the partially completed tunnel beneath Piazza Plebiscito was abandoned.
When I said "bridging the spaces," that was only partially a metaphor. It isn't a bridge; it's a small barge—or a large raft. (There is standing room for about a dozen persons.) Lower sections of the Bourbon Tunnel already had water in them—not seawater, by the way; it's fresh water fed by the same subterranean sources that fed the old reservoir system (mentioned in the entries above). There was about a 40-meter-wide pool of water between the chambers of the Bourbon tunnel and the abandoned RTL tunnel, so Borbonica sotterranea built a shaky raft dock on both sides. That is the ride you can now take—not to hell, but rather to one hell of a waste of taxpayers' money.
The abandoned light-rail tunnelMake no mistake, though. It can be spooky. As in Dante, you "hurtle down to the end of all descent," down through one narrow tunnel after another. (I got stuck at one point and, I assure you, the chorus whisper-chanting behind me in ancient Greek, "C'mon, fat boy, move it along!" did not help, although it does sound better in ancient Greek). You wind up at water's edge and all you see is nothing at the other end. Suddenly it's gloomy. It might be Hades. Of course, it isn't (since everyone knows that the real River Styx is at Lake Averno, a few miles north of Naples.) It's just a very dark place; you step off onto the raft, and here is where your imagination kicks in. It's pitch black and for all you know—which is zero—you may never come back. You are then poled along to the far side by that mysterious Charon impersonator. (One of your fellow-travelers has a sense of humor that impels him to hold his little flashlight beneath his chin and shine it up such that his face takes on that grotesque "Hey, mommy. I'm a monster"-look. I try to edge him closer to the side of the raft.)
You step off into a very large space well beneath Piazza Municipio. There is no exit at that end and, as far as I know, no plans to build one. The space is huge, an unused quarter-mile of modern subway tunnel with no future. It is not even to be used as part of the incoming #6 subway line, which is digging its own tunnel. Since the heavy lifting (or digging) has already been done, they should use the space for something, maybe an underground Museum of Boondoggles connected by satellite to countless other such sites around the world.
Since there is no clear passage up to the top and out onto the welcoming wide-open spaces of Piazza Plebiscito (although the original construction workers must have had one), you turn around, walk back, hail a raft and trudge back the way you came, all the way beneath Mt. Echia, the hill of ancient Parthenope.
It occurs to me that if this were Finnish mythology, you could do all that on the back of a swan.
update Nov 2015 Opening of the New Expansion of the Bourbon Tunnel - Press Conference
I am indebted to Clemente Esposito and his article "Il Tunnel Borbonico" on the website of Napoli Underground, by whose kind concession the photo of the tunnel in item #1 appears on this page.
I thank (at least I think I do) Fulvio Salvi of Napoli Underground for having shanghai'd me onto the tour described in item #4 and for constantly whispering in my ear: "The walls are not closing in on you...not closing it on you...not... I repeat, if you don't like the dark, water, tight spaces or gloom (in whatever order), don't go.
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